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BAYOU BLACK -- They fell to the concrete, lifeless and heavy, with a wet "thwap" sound that would make anyone with a delicate digestive disposition shiver and look away.
The alligator hunters, however, intently watched over the process with hands on hips or cigarettes dangling from lips as their kills -- the fall’s first harvest -- were hauled Wednesday into the Greenwood Gator Farm processing plant on Bayou Black.
"Today was actually pretty good," said Brent Cenac of Houma, manager of a hunting lodge owned by Plains All American Pipeline. "We ran 80 lines and picked up 26 gators: two 10-footers, several 8-footers. Overall, the length was real good."
But for some trappers, the hunt could always be better.
"We’re satisfied. We always wish for bigger," said Phillip Tabor Sr. of Thibodaux, who hauled in 28 gators with help from his son, Phillip Tabor Jr., his brother from Texas, Lloyd Tabor, and his son, Alex Tabor.
While the season opened Wednesday for hunters in Terrebonne, Lafourche and parishes to the east, the rest of the state will open next Wednesday, said Noel Kinler, alligator program manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
"We’re anticipating a harvest between 34,000 and 35,000 alligators statewide. We have a lot of alligators here," Kinler said. "We’re looking forward to a good season."
Wild-alligator-hunting season technically lasts about a month, but most trappers catch their allowance within the first week or two. This year, Wildlife and Fisheries approved a 17-percent increase in the number of tags issued to hunters, Kinler said. Wildlife officials expect hunters to harvest 95 percent of the tags.
"Alligators are doing great in Louisiana," he said. "This year, environmental conditions have returned to more normal conditions. Last year’s numbers were down because of drought and effects of the  storms."
Three large processing plants in Terrebonne took in alligators Wednesday, Kinler said.
Tim Domangue, owner of the Greenwood farm, said he expects to see 100 hunters by the end of the first day.
Down the road, Daneco alligator farm saw a decent harvest for the first day, as well.
"It’s going pretty good," said Dane Ledet Jr., who works in the 16-table skinning room all season. "It went as well as it can be expected."
The Daneco farm will likely process close to 3,000 pieces, Ledet said. But, he said, the first day can be hairy for some.
"Typically wild season. It’s just wild," Ledet said. "You try to predict it, but you can’t predict what you’ll catch. Some of the trappers I talked to said they weren’t biting as well as they should have because of the weather yesterday and last night."'READY TO ROLL’
One by one, the trucks pulled up to the concrete pad at Greenwood Gator Farm where the production line would begin.
"It’s slow when you first start, until about lunchtime. Then it starts kicking off. And that’s when it starts," said Zackery Goff, who’s been working at the plant about seven years.
Climbing into the back of pickup trucks and boats on trailers, workers flung the rubbery beasts onto the floor. The sound of wet flesh on wet concrete was an instant "splat" as smaller gators flew through the air. But for the heavier ones, getting them on the ground required first hoisting their upper torsos onto the edge of the boat or trailer. Their limp jaws briefly flapped open, almost as if they gasped for breath, but instead brownish red soup spilled out. Then, without much warning, workers flipped the gators’ legs and tails over the edge so that the gators would faceplant into the concrete before the rest of its body fell.
Using a hook in its mouth, pulling it by the leg or simply grabbing the swamp creature underneath the jaw, the handful of workers dragged the gators, belly to the sky, into a lineup. A vivid red trail of blood sometimes trickled from the customary bullet in the top of the head.
"A lot of times they come back to life. They play dead or you think they’re dead," said Tracy Ellender, who’s worked at the plant two years penning measurements onto a clipboard of documents. On the offseason, Ellender runs a monogramming business that’s made most of the farms monogrammed hats and shirts.
Along with Wildlife and Fisheries, Ellender records the kills. They note length, sex and the number on the tag for the hunters. If a gator came from a farm, the documents note that, too. Each farm uses metal toe tags and has distinct patterns which the farm cuts on the gators’ tail notches.
On his first day working at the plant, Darryl Walker smiled and joked as he helped measure, obviously unfazed by his new job’s scenery.
Donning a bright yellow, rubber apron, Walker said he took the job after a friend suggested he try it.
"Oh, I like it. It’s exciting, and it’s something new," Walker said, who’s an offshore cook the rest of the year. "I’m going to give this a shot for three months, then go back offshore. … Only difference is the heat ëcause I’m used to climate control."
Like a child pulling a red wagon behind him, Walker dragged gators from the concrete pad, by way of a large metal hook, into the plant’s walk-in cooler with stark-white walls. On the opposite wall, swinging double doors led into the cutting room.'YOU SKIN ALLIGATOR?’
Inside the bone-chilling butcher room, a strong smell like fresh fish hits the nostrils. About a dozen metal tables were set up in workstations. Morgan City resident Jerry Guillory said he typically spends 15 minutes processing a gator. The first step is to inflate the dead creature with a cord that looks like a car-tire air pump. That makes cutting into the gators smoother. With 50 years under his belt, Guillory maneuvers his knife and hatchet quickly, first starting with the outer skin. He then chops off the gators’ tails and heads, removing the jaw muscle and the tail.
"That’s the best part of a gator," Guillory said, peeling back the outer tail muscle, revealing the smoother tissue underneath. "Like a ribeye."
While workers like Guillory quickly cut into the massive beasts, Kena Reed of Gray worked meticulously on a smaller gator on the left side of the room. Reed’s French-manicured nails had traces of gator under and on top of them, something she said comes off easily.
A nine-year veteran of gator processing in Lockport, Raceland and now Bayou Black, Reed said she’s never been treated differently than any of the men.
"Skin 'em just like a man do. I get a lot of, 'You skin alligator?’ 'Yeah,’ " she said.
The meat is packaged so it can be sold wholesale to another processor before it’s sold to consumers. The hides are salted and then sent to tanneries.HIGH-END HIDES
After processing plants strip the gators of their hides, the dark green and yellow skins are sent to people like Kevin Ashley, a Florida resident, whose job is to grade the hides and negotiate prices. The bellies are the most-valuable because of their soft texture. Skins are sold by the length of the gator, generally running $37 per foot, Ashley said.
Most of the hides get sent to France, Italy and other countries in Europe because the tanneries are cheaper and high-end fashions still have a stronghold in that continent, said Ashley, who works for the Louisiana Landowners Cooperative.
"When you’re making a leather handbag, you don’t want a big scar," Ashley said.
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